What is the Hammer Series? Digging deeper into the races that could change cycling

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The new Hammer Series was announced on Wednesday, with the unveiled multi-day format seeking to determine the best teams in the sport via a number of rounds. Beginning this year with an event in Limburg, the Netherlands [June 2-4, details here], plenty of questions remain about the background details and how the system will work.

The series is organised by the sports marketing company Infront Sports and Media plus Velon, a collective of ten of the sport’s 18 WorldTour teams. CyclingTips spoke to Velon CEO Graham Bartlett about the Hammer Series, covering subjects such as its origin, its planned funding sources, clashes with the existing calendar, broadcasting plans and more.

CyclingTips: First off, can you give us an overview of the new Hammer Series and what it is about?

Graham Bartlett: Well, we have got something fantastic. We got a whole new way of doing a race. It’s a completely different approach but it draws from the core disciplines of the sport. lim

What we’ve done is we created a team vs team race. Only a team can win it. It is three days. It is intensive riding. The first day you climb – all these circuits, all these days are loops. So the first is a climbing day. The second day is a sprint day. The last day is the chase.

The chase day sees the leaders from the first two days go off first, and then you stagger it back from there. It is like a handicap release system. The first team goes off, you wait 30 seconds, then the next team goes off, you wait 25 seconds. The next team on the leaderboard goes off and so on.

And then it’s the first team over the line that wins. You build up to a crescendo and everybody asks on the last day who’s going to win it. We are trying to create this real Ben Hur Coliseum type atmosphere. And we are trying to determine who is the best team in the world. You have to prove it through winning these races and winning the series.

How many events will there be in the series?

We are going to start with one this year. One big pinnacle launch, which is going to be in the Limburg Sports Zone. The province of Limburg is investing in this big sports zone complex which is a dedicated elite cycling arena they’re building, and that’s going to be the first race.

We are going to do that one, and then we are building the series up for 2018. We have got a lot of interested cities to take it because each round is based around one city. You don’t move, it is in the same place. So we are looking to add another three to the series next year in 2018. And then beyond that we want to expand, so that we have a series of between eight to ten races.

Velon’s CEO Graham Bartlett, who is representing many WorldTour teams in trying to transform the sport and its commercial model

Will it be all about the teams themselves, or will they also be obliged to bring some of the big headline names?

It’s a balance, that. It is not a circus to parade names. We want a really competitive race and the teams want to win it. They want to be able to send the riders that can win this format.

Now some teams are more set up for it than others. They’ll pick their riders in their team. You get seven in your squad and of those, five race each day. You can obviously change riders. So one day you can change in your two sprinters, another day you change in your two climbers.

In terms of the names, we will announce Tom Dumoulin first. He’s obviously a big local hero and a big star…we will announce him and others will follow.

But we really want people to understand that this type of format is very intense, impactful racing. It will suit some riders more than others. Limburg is quite a flat course so the guys who you win on the days of climbing for two and a half hours in the Alps are not necessarily the guys who will win you that race. So we want the people who can win the race for that team.

Yes, there will be some big names there for sure, [but] we’re not trying to recreate the Tour de France here or anything.

We want a team that can win. There is no point in Sky sending a bunch of people can’t possibly win in Limburg just because they are big names in the sport, and then they will finish last. It’s got to be about horses for courses but within that, of course, you’re going to get some stellar names because our guys are all committed to it and our teams all have a big stake in this. And then the other teams, they want to come and win it.

I mean, Movistar will tell you, ‘we’re the best team in the world because the UCI has told us we are the best team in the world on the points system.’ But they’re looking at it going, ‘hang on a minute, we want to prove to people on the road that we are the best team as well.’ So that that’s the incentive to send their best guys to this – people want to win that crown.

There is an existing world team time trial championship and then there is the WorldTour team classification as well. This is a different type of team competition. Is there a financial element to incentivise teams to take part?

There is prize money obviously involved in this. We haven’t announced that yet. It’s something we are going to announce in due course as we get closer to the race. We are holding that back a bit at the moment.

There is good prize money for it. But what we are looking at is to create something different to what is already there. You mentioned the World Champs. I mean, the only team event is the team time trial, and that’s a time trial. So you can be crowned the World Champion of time trialling, but that doesn’t necessarily make you the best all-round team.

And then there is the UCI WorldTour best team of the year. And that is calculated by adding up the points of your different riders and who’s got the most points from different riders. So that’s a different way of doing it. The UCI’s approach of best in the year is different to what ours is. Ours is, can you ride these disciplines, these formats in this racing on the road and prove to be the best team of the year in this format?

It is a different way of looking at it. It doesn’t compete with the UCI’s award because that is a totally different award.

So how will it sync with the existing calendar? Will there be overlap with existing races?

Well, there is always overlap, isn’t there? You can’t avoid it. There are 280 days of riding in the calendar so you have always got to overlap with something.

I mean, we try to avoid going up against races where similar riders will compete. So the riders who will go to the Dauphine, for example, will be very, very different to the rides who will come to the Hammer Series, the Hammer Race.

So there are always overlaps but we are trying to navigate around the calendar so you don’t have a pull on the same riders for the same races on that particular weekend. As you know, races are very, very different. The team you are going to send to an eight-day stage race is not the same as a team you would send to an impact team race. That’s the shorter format than we are creating here.

As regards the overlap with the Dauphine, it is slightly accidental. The UCI gave us those dates and we tried to do different ones, to look at it. In the end those were the dates we ended up with. But it is a very different event.

There are a lot of clashes already in the calendar. Some people will read something into the dates, but they shouldn’t. The Dauphine is an amazing race. It will have great riders this year, like it does every year. It is certainly not something that we are trying to compete with in any way, because we are totally different. A completely different format. A totally different idea. A totally different concept, and I am sure the fans will watch both.

The new races are called the Hammer Series. How did that title come about?

Well, when we worked with Infront and the design agencies, we really wanted something different. Everything is ‘Tour of something’ or ‘Criterium of whatever.’ We said, look, we want something that really reflects the nature of what we are doing.

This whole programme and format wasn’t designed by Infront or Wanda. It was done in consultation and discussion with riders, fans, broadcasters, the teams themselves, obviously. And what we wanted to come up with, and I think one of the riders summed it up very well in saying, ‘this is impact racing.’ So when we got this idea of impact racing, we said, ‘let’s come with something that is different and is not the same as what is already out there.’

The design agency that that Infront work with came up with Hammer. Drop the hammer, full gas, put the hammer down, go for it.

What we are trying to encapsulate is the pivotal moment in the race where we go, we go for it now, full gas. Let’s go past the opposition. And you’ll see when you see the logo, we try to reflect that in the H. This passing moment, this moment of truth in the race.

That is the thinking behind the brand and the name. Go for something different, catchy, impactful.

Is there a sports model this is based on from all the sports? Is there anything you can draw parallels with?

Well, I think that the team aspect is very interesting as parallels. If you look at… we are trying to get the emotion into the team position. If you look at the likes of the Ryder Cup, if you look at the likes of national racing a bit as well, it draws in elements of that.

What we were looking for really was a different format to what is out there, to bring new fans into the sport.

If we look at other sports, they’re looking for maybe more impactful, shorter formats that can capture a new generation of fans in sports.

Look at the success of Twenty20 cricket. For me, I think it’s very interesting the way that when people first announced Twenty20, people said that will that be the death knell of test match cricket. But that has not proved to be the case. If anything, it has energised the sport.

So you need to bring in and attract a new, different audience. A more youthful audience. We went to the big broadcasters of sport at the very beginning of discussions, asking what did they think, drawing from the best there is there in cycling.

Cycling is very exciting. You got fantastic, exciting moments in the race. They tend to be spread out over six or eight hours. How do you make it more condensed, more impactful?

The media was very much about, ‘give us a two hour slot. Pack the action in and create the atmosphere by staying in the same place.’ So the crowds can get really closely involved.

We all know that the great races out there like the Tour of Flanders, it is the crowds by the side of the Kwaremont. It’s fantastic. And the guys go up that hill four times.

So how do we create that same atmosphere over and over again to really generate that fan engagement into this? That’s the inspiration behind this format. What’s for the fans and how they can get more closely involved in seeing more of the action more often? And that is the thing that the riders have been telling us: that they really like the idea of that. That they can really draw from the crowd because they love it. They bounce off the idea of the fans being much more closely connected to them.

Obviously there has been talk of doing things differently for some time. Part of that is teams having more revenue. Will there be a share of TV rights, will the fans be paying admission? Where will the revenue be coming from for this?

Well, the business model behind it was designed by Infront. The race series is invested in by them. Obviously the teams and Velon have a stake in that as well.

As you know with races, the model is…there is a race organizer, and in this case, this is Extra Leisure in Limburg and the Limburg provence. So they own the actual race. Infront licences the Hammer series to the race organiser. The revenue streams in the first instance will be very similar to any other race has: the media, the sponsorship.

There will be the areas that the fans can watch from a different environment, which will be ticketed like you have in the big Classics races, like you do in Roubaix and Flanders. There will be areas where people can pay and watch it. Or there will be lots of areas where people can watch it for nothing, like with races now. And we don’t envisage changing that too much.

And yes, of course we are doing this as a business proposition. We’re not shy about that. If you’re going to launch a new race series, you want it to generate revenue and income and that revenue and income to flow back in good proportion to the teams. That’s what we’re about, for sure. Whether that’s the media rights, the sponsorship rights or any other revenue stream, we want our race partners who own the races to do good business and we want good business to grow with the teams themselves.

So, absolutely. That is what Velon is all about, partnership with others to generate joint revenue to share.

We spoke in the past about live broadcasts and data streams from within the bunch. So if this is a closed circuit within a limited area, does that facilitate those technological aspects?

Yeah it does. It is a very strong part of it. As you know, we have pioneered this area. I don’t know if you saw what we did with Eurosport at the Vuelta Andalucia, but it is really developing and growing now.

We’re still at the early stages of this, of how you show the race from the data and the live cams. We just did a live camera in Abu Dhabi. Again, we were the first to do that with RCS the year before last. So yeah, we will bring a lot of technology through Velon interactive. We will put a lot of effort into that.

It is clear that if you’re developing in this kind of format, you want people to understand the racing. There will be different tactics and the best way to show that is to show the performance data of the riders, show the feeds from the bikes themselves. See what is going on in the heart of the peloton.

For us it is home turf because the race organiser is partnering with us on the basis that we bring this fantastic format, but also that we bring a really exciting new development in technology. So, all the cutting edge stuff that we’re trying to do and achieve in the road races that we’re already partnered with like London, like Abu Dhabi, we will put them absolutely to the fore in the Hammer Series.

We will showcase it to the best possible effect in those in road races.

So what will the platform be for people to be able to use that? Will it be online? Will it be apps? Will it be incorporated into TV coverage, or how will people be able to access the extra data that is coming?

It is all three. All three. We will offer it to people in whatever way they want to take it. Some people like to see it in the broadcast. Some like to watch the broadcast and have more detail online. And others are out and about and want to look at it from an app basis. So we will offer all three different mechanisms of delivering that race experience to people, whether it is by data or the video feeds.

I think it is important to be able to reach the fans in whatever way they wish to consume it.

So when will the specifics of this coverage be released?

On the technology in the coverage, we will release that a bit later. We will do that as we get nearer to the event. We will start to tell people a little bit more about what we are going to do. We are going to make some big changes and upgrade a lot of the technology stuff that we’re doing. We’ve had a significant interest from investment partners to improve and advance dramatically what we are doing in that area.

So as we do that in the next few weeks, we’ll then release this, announce this and do bigger, better things on the road and then build up to what we’re doing in Limburg and show the best of it there.

What is the UCI’s view of the series? Is it supportive?

Yes, the race and the race series is UCI sanctioned. This is all part of the calendar. We start off as HC races. It is an unusual format so it doesn’t fit easily within their current classification system. We did a lot of work with the UCI about where this should be placed.

But this is fully signed off by the UCI. They are on board with it.

If you look at Wanda and Infront, what are their plans for cycling? Are they looking at other aspects as well, or will they concentrate on this to start with before expanding elsewhere?

Well, Wanda have been fantastic and our partnership with Infront has really energised this whole position. Obviously Wanda Sport have the Tour of Guangxi, which will take place for the first time this year. We are obviously developing the Hammer Series with Infront, which are a subsidiary of Wanda Sports.

I think they have already shown they have got a great desire and interest to invest in cycling as a sport, which is fantastic for the sport. It is great to be able to attract that level of expertise and investment because they’re a very big company. They have a huge position in entertainment…not just sport. The Wanda Sports entertainment division is vast, and I think the sport can really benefit from this. Not just investment, money, but also the expertise of what sits within that vast group.

The cinema entertainment chains and all the different aspects that Wanda brings to the table is really exciting.

Down the line, do you think Wanda will look at running stage races or even Grand Tours?

I think that the moment the focus is very much on….Wanda is always a very inquisitive and interesting investment vehicle. I’m not privy to all of their high-level discussions about what they are going to do next. But what I do know is they are going to really make a big success out of the Tour of Guangxi and they are working with us through Infront on the Hammer series.

They have already got quite a sizeable start so I think for this year that is going to be the focus. Then we will see where they go from there.

Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity and length.

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